Spider-Man: Web of Shadows sounds like a comic book fan’s dream come true. Who wouldn’t want to play the webbed hero, swinging around the city fighting crime, wooing Mary Jane, and all without an annoying movie tie-in? In Web of Shadows, Spidey is enlisted to stop Venom’s symbiotes from taking over the city – and finds time to do some gang cleanup and community service on the side. Along the way, Spider-Man will be constantly tempted to the dark side. Will you give in to the nefarious black suit, or stay true to the red and blue? The choice is yours…but you’ll have to put up with some annoyances along the way.

On the surface, Web of Shadows looks pretty good. Spider-Man is animated beautifully, from his flexible combat maneuvers to his awkward-yet-graceful rooftop landings. The city you’re swinging around in is full of detailed buildings to climb around on, and everything has the crisp, clean look of a comic book panel. Physics, while basic, are still fun in the context of a superhero game. Cars can be thrown around, enemies can hurl you through chainlink fences, and light poles can be bent or knocked over during the course of a violent fight.

Unfortunately these pleasant graphics come at a very heavy price. My custom-built gaming rig, which laughs at Crysis and physically *yawned* when I installed Far Cry 2, almost choked on this game. Frame rates dipped into single digit territory at times. Turning off V-Sync helped a bit, but this resulted in constantly flickering sidewalks. It is obvious that Web of Shadows is a poorly implemented console port, because the game runs much better on the 360 and PS3.

 

Compounding these problems is the extremely frustrating camera system. In theory, the player has full control of the camera, and for the most part they do – as long as Spider-Man stays on the ground. Once you start swinging around and wall-climbing buildings, however, things change drastically. Mouse control over the camera becomes a game of Russian Roulette when climbing. Sometimes it works, and sometimes it doesn’t. Sometimes the camera will swing wildly to one side, blocking your view and forcing you to randomly move around until you happen across an angle that actually shows you where you are. Even worse, this inconsistency sometimes occurs in certain isolated areas on the ground. For instance, in one scene in an open park I was inexplicably locked into an angle which had me running the character backwards (towards myself) in order to move. In a game which relies so heavily on using all three dimensions in a precise manner, this kind of sloppy and unpredictable camera system is unacceptable.

While the voice acting is passable in the game, there are a few caveats. Spider-Man (SPOILER ALERT: He’s actually Peter Parker) sounds like a 13-year old girl who just found out she was grounded and her mom’s not going to let her go to the Jonas Brothers concert. Seriously, Luke Skywalker didn’t sound this whiny when he was prattling on about picking up power converters from Tashi Station.  It was a little disconcerting to play this powerful superhuman being zipping around the city knocking the lights out of enemies, and then hear him talk like such a wuss in the cutscenes. Yeah, yeah, I know. Peter Parker is supposed to be a wisecracking kid. But if this portrayal is the new standard, I think he should legally change his name to Spider-Brat. The other problem with the sound is that it often stuttered during cutscenes. Again, turning off V-Sync helped a bit, but it still cropped up from time to time.

The other actors are OK for the most part, but the game’s not going to win any awards for sound design. The game is decidedly “meh” in the audio department – fulfilling the job requirements but doing nothing to go above and beyond them.

The controls in Web of Shadows range from the exceedingly simple to moves that require expert timing to pull off correctly. Fortunately the game does a pretty good job of introducing these moves to you slowly, and forcing you to master one before moving on to the next. Basic street level combat is pretty much spamming one button, which will cause Spidey to punch and pull off combos.

 

Web moves are a different story, and often require good timing. One heavily used move requires you to shoot a web at an enemy, pull yourself towards them, and then hit the button again to do a sort of kick off of the enemy for heavy damage.  These types of moves, while absolutely necessary to get past certain missions, can be a bit frustrating the first time you learn them. Learning new moves often occurs within the context of a training mission, and until you master the move you are stuck watching the same cutscene over and over again.

 

Because this is the PC version, the game can be played with a mouse and keyboard. However, I’d recommend getting a good gamepad instead. The game is clearly a lazy console port, and playing with the keyboard is a real challenge. While the developers did a decent job keeping hotkeys grouped together logically, the game just doesn’t feel like a PC title. Playing with mouse and keyboard consistently felt clunky, especially in options and menu screens where there was no mouse support at all.

Once again, the camera system must be mentioned. Because of its unpredictable nature, you will run into frustrating sequences –especially when climbing buildings – in which it’s almost impossible to orient yourself or figure out where your enemy is. I lost many a mission because the camera suddenly decided to do something independently, or stopped responding to my controls. If the camera system had been better, I could have probably lived with the keyboard controls.

The concept of an open-world, GTA-type game in which you play a superhero running around helping innocents and battling evil sounds like a winner on paper. Web of Shadows, at first glance, seems like it will live up to this great concept. There is a large city to explore, and you are free to tackle missions in whatever order you wish. Random crime scenes will pop up on the map, and you can choose to rush in to save the day or simply ignore them.
The problem is that these side missions and extracurricular activities are so mind-numbingly boring, there’s little incentive to do them other than to grind out XP. While this is certainly a worthwhile endeavor, it’s not much fun while you’re doing it. For example, you may get a mission to subdue 10 gang members. Sounds easy enough. But after you finish that, you’ll get a mission to subdue 50 gang members, then 100. That’s not fun; it’s homework.

 

Ok, so if these missions are optional, you can always follow the storyline, right? True enough, but the storyline missions are very linear. At the beginning of the game, these missions serve to teach you new moves and introduce you to new characters. Unfortunately, your instructors are like drill sergeants who won’t let you advance until you get it right. Some of the moves are tricky, and after sitting through a cutscene ten times in a row because you failed to chain kick seven enemies, you may feel like chain kicking your computer screen instead.

 

One redeeming aspect of the gameplay is the ability to upgrade your suits with new moves and powers. By gaining XP and finding spider medallions scattered around the city, you can upgrade your powers. These powers can be applied in a “skill tree” type system that applies to the red/blue suit, black suit, or both. The ability to learn these new powers makes grinding out XP *slightly * more bearable, but the new powers are still just variations on the same moves you’ll be repeating hundreds of times.

 

Much of the thin storyline revolves around the influence of the black Venom suit on Peter Parker. You have a choice throughout the game as to which suit you want to use, and this supposedly has some corrupting influence on you. However, this whole side of the game feels underdeveloped and largely unnecessary. I never felt compelled to switch suits – for the most part they are so similar that you won’t really need to do so.

I really wanted to like Web of Shadows. I love Spider-Man, and the concept of roaming around a city fighting crime in a free-form fashion sounded like a blast. It’s true, the web-slinging is fun, and swinging between rooftops never gets old. However, the game is dragged down by mindless combat that grinds on and on and on. Combine that with dishwater-dull side missions, occasionally frustrating storyline missions that rely on specific moves, and an unexciting plot, and you wind up with a game that really misses the mark.

 
I haven’t played the console versions, but I imagine they would come out much better than the PC version. This is a lazy console port, and you will feel it every time you deal with stuttering audio, abysmal framerates, and clunky keyboard controls. There is some limited fun to be had initially, as you grow accustomed to new moves and swinging around the city. However, the honeymoon fades pretty quickly. If you absolutely must play the game, at least save your money for one of the console iterations. This PC port gives our friendly neighborhood Spider-Man a bad name.

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